Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Title: The Lost Weekend (1945)
Studio Line: Universal Studios

The Best Picture of 1945 has lost none of its bite or power in this uncompromising look at the devastating effects of alcoholism. Ironically, this brilliant Billy Wilder film was almost never released because of poor reaction by preview audiences unaccustomed to such stark realism from Hollywood, but the film has since gone on to be regarded as one of the all-time great dramas in movie history. Ray Milland's haunting portrayal of a would-be writer's dissatisfaction with his life leads him on a self-destructive three-day binge. Filled with riveting imagery, the multiple Academy Award-winner offers an unforgettable view of life on the edge.

Director: Billy Wilder
Cast: Ray Millard, Jane Wyman, Phillip Terry, Howard Da Silva, Doris Dowling, Frank Faylen
Academy Awards: Won for Best Picture; Best Director; Best Actor-Ray Milland; Best Screenplay. Nominated for Best Cinematography; Best Film Editing; Best Score-Miklos Roszsa. 1946.
DVD: Standard 1.33:1; audio English Digital Mono; subtitles Spanish, French; closed-captioned; single sided - single layered; 18 chapters; Not Rated; 101 min.; $29.98; street date 2/6/01.
Supplements: Theatrical Trailer; Production Notes On The Making Of The Film; Cast And Filmmakers Biographies And Film Highlights.
Purchase: DVD

Picture/Sound/Extras: C+/B-/D-

As I realized when I recently watched another Oscar winner, 1947’s Gentleman’s Agreement, the Forties appears to have been a surprisingly progressive time period. Folks of my generation think of the Sixties as the time when social problems came to the forefront, but if the movies of the era are any indication, many of these kinds of subjects were debated 20 years earlier.

Unfortunately, it appears that the lack of subtlety found in later explorations of various issues also existed in the Forties. Gentleman’s Agreement was a heavy-handed appraisal of anti-Semitism, and 1945’s The Lost Weekend seems no less forced in its view of alcoholism. The result is a slow-moving and forced drama that left me cold.

In TLW, we start as failed writer and boozehound Don Birnam (Ray Milland) is about to be schlepped to the country for the weekend. His straight-arrow brother Wick (Phillip Terry) is trying once again to cure Don of the influence of the demon alcohol, and Don’s long-suffering girlfriend Helen (Jane Wyman, former long-suffering wife of Ronald Reagan) provides moral support.

Unfortunately, she also provides an excuse for Don to get trashed again when she shows up with an extra opera ticket. Don and Wick need to hit the train, but Don convinces Wick and Helen to go to the show together, and the boys will hitch a later ride. Stupidly, the two trust Don to avoid the booze - Wick leaves him no money and thinks he’s hidden all the juice - and head off for the theater.

Inevitably, Don finds a way to pay for some liquor, and he’s quickly down to Nat’s Bar for some cheap thrills. Thus begins Don’s painful “lost weekend” in which he plods drunkenly from low to even lower to lowest.

TLW clearly has good intentions as it attempts to educate us of the evils of demon alcohol, but the film lacks much depth. We see that Don has turned to the bottle due to his writer’s block, but the movie doesn’t attempt to explore his problems at any level greater than that. Here we have a guy with a cute, exceptionally-devoted girlfriend and a responsible, helpful brother, yet he can’t do anything to get on the wagon. Does that kind of situation happen in real life? Certainly. Alcoholics often stay that way despite the frenzied interventions of loved ones. However, TLW provides no greater sense of comprehension of Don’s plight; basically it makes him just seem weak-willed and doesn’t give us any form of insight.

In addition, the film fails to let us understand why Helen is so stuck on Don. He eventually cheeses off his brother to a degree that Wick essentially abandons Don, but Helen’s still trying to save him. Why? We obtain no feeling for her emotions and although some flashbacks show earlier parts of their relationship, there’s nothing more than glib, superficial looks at his outward charm, none of which seems sufficient to make a woman put up with all of his problems.

Ultimately, The Lost Weekend remains far too overwrought and melodramatic to provide any kind of deep look at the life of an alcoholic, and this isn’t helped by a manic and over the top performance from Milland. Academy members must have all been sauced when they voted, for I can’t understand how Milland won an Oscar for his work here. He seems so far from reality that I could barely stand it. Much acting of the era was broader and more theatrical than what we see today, but even if I adjust for that factor, Milland still appears to chew lots of scenery.

In its defense, I suppose that The Lost Weekend offered a baby step for Hollywood in their attempts to explore societal issues, and that’s a good thing. Films like this had to exist before more in-depth offerings could appear. However, just because something was first doesn’t make it good. As a whole, I found TLW to provide an unrealistic and labored take on alcoholism.

Frankly, my recent screenings of the films made by legendary director Billy Wilder haven’t impressed me. Before The Lost Weekend, I saw Double Indemnity and thought it seemed radically over-rated as well. Perhaps my disaffection for Wilder only relates to his dramas. Check back late in the spring when I get to view more comedic fare like The Apartment and Some Like It Hot!

The DVD:

The Lost Weekend appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.33:1 on this single-sided, single-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Overall, the film presented a watchable image but it suffered from some flaws that made it appear fairly average as a whole.

Sharpness generally appeared acceptably crisp and well-defined. Some softness interfered with the image at times, but those occasions were fairly rare. Mostly I found the movie to look decently accurate and detailed. Some moiré effects appeared in clothes, however, which showed moderate shimmering at times.

Black levels seemed nicely rich and deep, but shadow detail was less consistent. Interiors tended to appear somewhat drab and bland, and on those occasions, low-light situations came across as excessively thick and dim. The movie also betrayed a vaguely flickering quality at times, and contrast generally appeared mildly weak.

Although TLW suffered from some flaws, it appeared relatively clean for a film of its vintage. Throughout the film, light grain could be seen, and I also detected some examples of grit, speckles, and a few vertical lines. However, these rarely seemed particularly heavy. Ultimately, The Lost Weekend looked pretty mediocre but decent.

For its era, the film’s monaural soundtrack also seemed relatively positive. Although speech displayed thin tones typical of the era, I found the dialogue to appear nicely clear and accurate throughout the movie. I detected no edginess or problems related to intelligibility. Music seemed clear and bright. It displayed no real dynamic range, but that also is typical of audio from the era, so I’m pleased with the general accuracy. Effects were also relatively clean and distinct, and only a few minor examples of background noise could be heard throughout the film. As such, this was a good example of a well-reproduced soundtrack from the Forties.

The Lost Weekend offers few supplements. We get the film’s trailer plus some solid text “Production Notes”. Lastly, the DVD includes a “Cast and Filmmakers” section. There we find modest biographies of actors Milland, Wyman, Terry, Howard Da Silva, Doris Dowling and Frank Faylen plus director Billy Wilder. It’s a surprisingly modest batch of extras considering the many excellent “Collector’s Editions” produced by Universal and the high profile enjoyed by this Oscar winner.

Nonetheless, I won’t complain too much simply because I don’t think The Lost Weekend is worth the effort. I found the film to provide an excessively broad and melodramatic examination of the life of an alcoholic and it lacked enough insight and personal qualities to make it worthwhile. The DVD offers fairly decent picture and sound but fails to include any significant extras. The Lost Weekend should be left to Oscar completists, as it fails to deserve much attention otherwise.

Equipment: Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.
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